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Japanese Put a Spin on Baseball

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Japanese Put a Spin on Baseball

by Herbert Mitgang (Jul 15, 1989)

You Gotta Have Wa By Robert Whiting Illustrated. 339 pages. Macmillan. $17.95.

Building a good car and building a great ball club are two different animals. Toyotas and Hondas compete in the American marketplace; Japanese players don't make it to the American big leagues. Yet baseball is the major professional sport in both countries. What's the difference? It's wa. What's wa? Wa is team spirit, unity. Wa works well on the company assembly line, but Wa is anti-individual on the playing field - a loser by American standards.

A reader is free to ponder the differences and draw conclusions about national characteristics and ways to beat the other fellow. Or he can forget baseball as a metaphor for business and simply sit back and enjoy the wonderful stories in "You Gotta Have Wa," one of the most unusual baseball books of the season. Robert Whiting, author of "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," has come up with another winner here.

"You Gotta Have Wa" concentrates on Americans who have played on Japanese teams, including the Mets' own Davey Johnson, and tells what happens when two cultures collide on the diamond and in the dugout. Baseball has been a one-way export of players and managers - from the United States to Japan. The Japanese have been playing professionally since 1935. They use the same rulebook, but their strike zone is wider on each side by the width of one baseball. Only two foreigners (called gaijin) are allowed on a team.

Most teams are owned by major corporations for public relations purposes. Mr. Whiting tells the story of the Yakult Swallows, who are owned by a flamboyant entrepreneur who made a fortune with a yogurt health drink called Yakult. The Swallows were based in Tokyo, also the home of the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's oldest and most popular team. Statistics showed that whenever the Swallows beat the Giants, sales of Yakult yogurt dropped. The author reports that the owner of the Swallows called a team meeting and told his players that he did not expect them to win against the Giants; second place would be ideal. Losing for the good of the company owner was a higher form of wa.

After hitting 27 homers in 1986 for the Atlanta Braves, Bob Horner joined the Yakult Swallows. He received $2 million, the fattest single-year contract in Japanese professional history. Horner was ordered to hit 50 homers; to remind him of what he was supposed to do, the owner issued him uniform No. 50. He began to fill the stands. Yakult stock shot up; noodle sales at the stalls below the grandstand dropped because the fans didn't want to miss seeing Horner belt one out of the park. Then the pitchers stopped throwing strikes at him; he'd either walk or swing at bad pitches. He began to gripe about the umpires and seemed like a sore loser.

A fellow-American, Leon Lee, who had played for the St. Louis Cardinals, told him the facts of life: "These are the most face-conscious people I've ever seen. It's a big loss of face for a pitcher here to give up a home run to a gaijin."

A constant complaint of all the American players was having to practice for practice's sake. They were at the park 10 hours a day. An integral part of training routines was showing that a player had courage and would push himself to the limit. One Japanese player was held up as an example. He fielded 900 consecutive ground balls in nearly three hours, then slumped to the ground, unable to get up. Even when injured, the American players were told to get out on the field with the team and obey the manager. American sluggers who didn't show proper respect for the manager were ordered to bunt. Wa was even more important than winning. No player could call the manager by his first name. Team discipline forbade it. Also face. And wa.

Mr. Whiting writes: "Americans played ball. Japanese worked at it." One Japanese player didn't call it baseball; he said the game was "work ball." The author tells of the Japanese player who showed emotion by throwing down his glove after committing an error. The manager slapped him in the face in front of thousands of fans. A Japanese journalist explained why: "A player's glove is his most important possession. He should treat it with respect as a samurai would his sword."

Although many of the Japanese players show great skill, why aren't they big leaguers by American standards? In Mr. Whiting's view, team harmony and rigid coaching drill out individual initiative. What's more, even the fans are disciplined. In an American ballpark, when a foul ball is caught in the stands, everyone cheers the lucky fan. A Japanese fan politely returns the ball to the stadium usher.

As a player, Davey Johnson was forced to play with an injured hand and became embittered by Japanese criticism. Yet as Mets manager, he found that the Japanese system had certain values, for example, working on a player's weaknesses in special practice sessions. He also thought that a certain degree of hard conditioning was valuable. Mr. Whiting quotes Mr. Johnson:

"The Japanese player is human, and maybe he is used to being abused, criticized and browbeaten. They all accept that as part of the system, but I know they would rather not go through with it. The coaches, however, don't know how to leave the ballplayers alone to play the game by themselves. They don't know how to stop messing with the players. That's the nature of the animal in Japan."

Or, as Mr. Whiting puts it, that's wa.

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